Have you heard of the Diderot effect?
The term was coined by Grant McCracken, an anthropologist, using the example of Denis Diderot, a famous French philosopher to illustrate consumerism or competitive consumption. How the acquisition of a new possession can lead to a spiral of increased consumption, ultimately hurting our wallets and wellbeing.
Denis Diderot was a famous 18 th century French philosopher, credited for being the co-founder and writer of the Encyclopédie. Diderot lived most of his life in poverty, until 1765, when Catherine the Great offered him a large sum of money for the sale of his library.
In his “Regrets sur ma vieille robe de chambre”, he discusses how the acquisition of an opulent new scarlet robe to replace his old well-loved one, ultimately led to his downfall and financial ruin.
“J’étais maître absolu de mon ancienne robe de chambre”, said Diderot, “mais je suis devenu esclave de ma nouvelle… attention à la contamination d'une richesse soudaine. Le pauvre peut prendre ses aises sans se soucier des apparences, mais le riche est toujours sous pression.”
Indeed, that new robe was so beautiful and elegant, it made the rest of his clothes look starkly shabby. He felt “no more coordination, no more unity, no more beauty” between his robe and the rest of his clothes. Using his new riches, he therefore decided to replace all of them. Suddenly, his trusty old wooden chair seemed out of sync with his luxurious new wardrobe, so he upgraded to one with a leather seat. From there, it all escalated, with reactive purchases, from paintings, rugs to better furniture. To the point where, he used all his money on things he hadn’t really wanted or needed in the first place.
Why do we buy what we don’t need?
It’s not all your fault. A lot of it has to do with all the marketing we’re relentlessly subject to, all the time. Have you noticed when you are shopping online, often websites suggest complimentary purchases, “Customers who bought this, also chose these three products?” You buy a new suit for work, and suddenly you need new leather shoes and accessories. And then a new watch to match.
Lifestyle creep is a problem because it never ends. Human beings can’t help but want more. We rarely think of downgrading, simplifying, reducing what we own. The Diderot effect can be damaging where it leads to:
1. Impulsive Buying:
The sudden desire to own new items, often driven by social comparison or personal dissatisfaction, can override our rational decision-making process. Impulsive purchases can be costly, particularly if they are unnecessary or unplanned.
2. Increased Spending
To maintain a sense of coherence and satisfaction with your possessions, you might continuously be upgrading or replacing items to match newer addition. This incessant cycle can lead to increased spending, exceeding your budget, and potentially leading to financial distress.
3. Debt accumulation
Like the movie “Confessions of a shopaholic”, when the desire to keep up with the perceived value of new possessions and the fleeting joy they bring, takes precedence over our financial means, it becomes easy to fall into debt. Accumulating credit card debt, loans or other forms of borrowing can be a vicious cycle that is difficult to break free from.
The Diderot effect and its impacts can leave little room to save money or invest, limiting
opportunities to increase financial security and accumulate wealth.
How to overcome the Diderot Effect?
To maintain a healthy financial lifestyle and avoid spiralling into consumerism, forget “dimoun ki pou dir” and remember that we are more than our possessions. Use the following strategies for intentional spending, aligned with your values.
1. Exercise Mindfulness
Being mindful of your purchasing decisions and consider the long-term consequences. Pause to visualise where this new item fits into your lifestyle and your home. This will help you evaluate whether the desire for a new possession is genuine or simply a result of the Diderot Effect. Ask yourself: am I buying this for me, is this useful to me or is this a status symbol?
2. Implement Delayed Gratification and avoid temptation
Follow the 48-hour rule before making any significant purchases to evaluate whether the desire for the new item is temporary or genuinely aligned with your needs and values. More isn’t necessarily better. On sale doesn’t mean we need to bring something home. One easy way not to overspend is to avoid catalogues and mailing lists and mindlessly going to shopping malls.
I follow the “one in, one out” principle – if I can’t make space for something new by giving something else away, I choose not to buy it.
3. Embrace the minimalist lifestyle and prioritise value
Focus on the value of what you already own and embrace having fewer, high-quality possessions so you can prioritise more meaningful life experiences. Assess whether the purchase aligns with your goals, values, and financial situation. Just because your friend bought a new phone or car, doesn’t have to mean you need to upgrade as well.
Anou servi nou kas pou aste zis saki nou bizin. Anou viv pou nou san vey nou prosin.
In Diderot’s own words, “Que mon exemple vous instruise. La pauvreté a ses franchises ; l’opulence a sa gêne.”
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